Historical Veracity
in the Documentation of the Flute



During the mid and later nineteenth century, as we have discussed elsewhere, the flute as an instrument underwent a process of reconsideration perhaps unparalleled by any other musical instrument in history.  A myriad of competing designs were developed and marketed, each stridently proclaimed by its originator to have resolved all of the residual problems recognized in the flute with respect to tone, intonation and fingering.  A major challenge facing those of us interested in the evolution of the flute during this period is to sort out the often-contradictory and frequently unsubstantiated claims made by those involved in this evolutionary process and evaluate these claims objectively on the basis of separate evidence which may confirm or refute them.

In the opinion of the present authors, by far the most persuasive method of undertaking such an evaluation is to allow the actual instruments involved to speak for themselves and thus either confirm or refute the claims made for them by their understandably partisan designers. To that end, we have embarked upon a program of acquiring historically-significant flutes, restoring them to original playing condition and then analysing their performance both on the basis of playing impressions and on the results of reproducible and hence directly comparable physical measurement and acoustical analysis.  The result of several of our evaluations are already presented elsewhere on this web site, and  many more will appear in the future as our work progresses.  

But in order to really bring this fascinating subject to life, the contemporary observations bequeathed to us by those who were directly involved in the process have a value that cannot be supplanted by mere analysis of the instruments involved. The personal element is what really brings the period to life for us, since it speaks to a level of human experience which we all share to some degree with our predecessors, however different the times and circumstances may be. 

At this point, one of the greatest challenges for the historical researcher presents itself.  The surviving artefacts, in this case the flutes, have no consciousness of their own testimony and no axes to grind or opinions to promote – they simply are what they are, and their characteristics can be measured and tested quite objectively in a reproducible manner.  The testimony that they provide is thus relatively unambiguous and free from any opportunities for the insertion of personal biases – the data speak for themselves.

However, this is far from true of the human observers and recorders of the period in question!  With few exceptions, most of the chief contemporary commentators on the subject of the flute during its major evolutionary phase in the mid and later nineteenth century held very strong personal opinions on the matters of which they were writing and in the majority of cases were actively promoting their own realizations of the “perfect flute” with a strong commercial interest. This being the case, it is almost inevitable that some level of personal bias or commercial influence will have colored their comments to a certain degree.  The challenge facing any researcher into the period is to filter out the effects which such personal biases may have imprinted upon the veracity or completeness of the comments which they have left us. The present essay is intended to clarify the basis upon which we ourselves approach the issue of credibility when extracting material from historical documents, and to advocate a similar approach by others. 

The influence of motivation for errors

Errors in the written record fall into two broad categories – unintentional and deliberate.  In many cases, misinformation provided by earlier commentators may be entirely unintentional and based on nothing more sinister than genuine misunderstandings or incomplete information. In such case, there is no motive behind the incorrect information provided – it is a genuine human error and nothing more.  All of us are entitled to those!

On the other had, the intentional promulgation of misinformation must surely have a motive in all cases.  A number of factors may influence a commentator to stretch, twist or alter the truth, including professional jealousy, commercial rivalry, salesmanship, self-aggrandizement or just plain antipathy. 

An objective review of the various texts bequeathed to us by our nineteenth-century colleagues reveals that most, if not all, of these commentators appear to have been guilty of lapses from hard fact or the omission of relevant facts, whether knowingly or otherwise.  It is often subjectively tempting to excuse such lapses on the grounds of honest error, simple misunderstanding, salesmanship, business motives or whatever.  While it is perfectly true that such subjectively “excusable” factors may have entered into the picture, the fact remains that, in terms of objective and academically-defensible research, an error of fact or omission remains an error regardless of the motivation whereby it materialized, and any author seriously seeking the respect of others for his or her work is under an academic obligation to report and correct such errors, regardless of who made them or for what reason. 

It can also be tempting to defend a commentator who has been shown to have made erroneous statements by claiming that “... it is intuitively obvious that what he (or she) really meant to say was ...”.  It should be crystal clear that this defense is academically inadmissible if we are concerned with the establishment of facts as opposed to opinions.  Lacking any opportunity to interview the long-dead commentators in question and thus obtain clarification, the only legitimate approach from an academic standpoint is to examine the work of a given commentator from the standpoint that the individual involved knew how to express himself or herself clearly and that hence the words which he or she bequeathed to us mean exactly what they say and that they were intended to convey this meaning and no other. To take any other approach defeats the entire academic purpose of an exercise of this nature by injecting a high level of subjectivity and assumption into an analysis which must be approached very objectively if the historical record is to be clarified on a purely factual basis. 

Categories of Erroneous Statements

Broadly speaking, errors in written works by contemporary commentators during the period with which we are concerned fall into five main categories:

1)       Innocent Errors of Fact – incorrect statements of fact made in good faith on the basis of the commentator’s genuine beliefs at the time of writing (an important qualification) based upon incorrect assumptions, incomplete knowledge or just plain misinformation accepted in good faith.  In this category, there is no intention to mislead or deceive, and the credibility and personal integrity of the commentator in question remain intact unless it can be conclusively shown that his or her work is excessively pervaded by such errors.   However, errors of this kind do need to be recognized and corrected in order to set the historical record straight.    

2)       Lies – incorrect statements of fact or false accusations made in the full knowledge of the true facts of the matter, with the intention of misleading or deceiving the reader.  This is a far more serious category, which most definitely calls into question the academic integrity of the commentator in question.  In this case, finding that the actual facts do not suit his or her contention or support a given accusation, the commentator either alters the facts to suit his or her theory or invents completely fictitious “facts” to support the contention being advanced.  While this is one of the most serious allegations that can be brought against any commentator in academic terms, it is often one of the easier ones to deal with, since in many cases separate evidence (often derived from such artifacts as surviving flutes or surviving records from demonstrably independent sources) can be brought into play to clarify the true state of affairs beyond rational argument.

3)       Omission of facts – due either to the commentator subjectively not seeing the omitted material as being important or relevant or, in many cases, to the commentator being genuinely and legitimately unaware of the omitted material at the time of writing (the latter being an important consideration).  It would be hard to find any commentator on any subject who is not guilty of this error, and there is nothing whatever sinister about it since there is no intention to mislead or deceive.  Nor does it necessarily reflect in an academic sense upon the credibility of the commentator in question.  But such omissions nonetheless require identification and amendment by later researchers in order to set the record straight.

4)       Suppression of facts – a far more serious matter! In this category, the commentator is well aware of the omitted material but has chosen to exclude it because it runs counter to some personal opinion, theory or goal, with a clear intention to mislead or deceive.  Since this type of error has a definite bearing both upon current appraisals of the historical facts surrounding a given issue and upon the academic credibility of a given commentator, it is essential that later researchers exercise due diligence in identifying and correcting such errors.

5)       Selection of facts – a matter which is in effect a subsidiary manifestation of the previous category. In this case, the commentator “high-grades” the facts to suit his or her particular theory or opinion, reporting as much of the truth as conforms to his or her particular thesis while suppressing the rest.  The most common manifestation of this issue in our context appears to be the carefully incomplete reporting of what another individual has said or done in connection with a particular subject, or the deliberate quoting of that material out of context.  Because what is reported is generally factual as far as it goes, the identification of errors of this nature can be quite challenging – it is obviously difficult to spot something that isn’t there to be spotted! However, if a commentator is claiming to be reporting comprehensively and objectively upon another individual’s comments or actions,  or is basing a certain stated opinion upon those comments or actions, then he or she is under an obligation to report those comments or actions in full and in context before presenting his or her opinion on the matter.  Failure to do so once again calls into question the credibility of the commentator involved, and can significantly affect the factuality of his or her presentation of the issue.  Hence, where this has not been done in the past, we believe that it is incumbent upon present researchers to fill in the gaps as best possible, or at least to identify any problems of incompleteness or lack of context that may exist.


The implications of errors upon the overall credibility of a commentator

It would be difficult to find a commentator (including the present authors and all of their predecessors)  who is not guilty of at least some unintentional Category 1 and Category 3 errors as set out above.  But this does not necessarily make all of a given commentator’s statements untrue by any means.  This leads to the question – what does the identification of a number of errors in a given writer’s work mean in terms of the credibility of his or her statements as a whole?  This is a difficult question to grapple with, but the attempt must be made if academic integrity is to be maintained.

We have already stated that, given the impossibility of interviewing the commentators involved to seek clarification, the only academically-defensible approach is to take the words in context and  in their entirety at their face value to mean exactly what they appear to mean.  Furthermore, it is necessary to assume that the apparent meaning, and no other, was intended by the writer.  Only in this way can the insertion of our own personal biases be avoided.   

We must now go further and state our view that the only academically-defensible credibility evaluation of such statements is the presumption that they are true,  unless and only unless they can be shown on the basis of separate and independent evidence (as opposed to mere opinion or speculation) not to be true or likely not to be true.  This may be called McGee & Duncan’s Presumption of Honesty – the presumption that statements made by past commentators on matters of historical interest are true unless and only unless authoritative evidence can be openly presented to demonstrate that such a presumption is unwarranted.   This approach parallels the fundamental legal principle of the presumption of innocence unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and there seems to be no good reason for denying our distinguished predecessors this same standard of protection in terms of their reputations.

In pursuing their historical flute studies, the present authors have applied this principle throughout, regardless of the commentator involved, and will continue to do so.  We will only identify errors when we believe that there is convincing evidence, which we will openly present for discussion, that the matters in question are indeed errors.  Otherwise, we will accept the evidence as factual or at least as un-contradicted.

It must surely be obvious that failure to adopt this principle and to adhere instead to a presumption of falsehood, would throw out much of the accepted written historical record, given that a great deal of our primary evidence consists of the often uncorroborated writings of persons long dead, upon whose veracity we have no choice but to rely unless we have very good reason to think that we cannot do so.

Where statements are encountered which directly contradict one another, it follows that one or the other (or possibly both!) must be untrue. In such cases, a serious effort must be made to find and present independent evidence to settle the matter one way or another.  If no such evidence can be found, there is no academically-credible basis for assuming that one statement is correct and the other incorrect, since that becomes a matter of subjective opinion rather than fact - all that can credibly be done in an academic sense is to point out the opposing statements and leave the matter there as an unresolved issue pending the appearance of fresh evidence.  

Some well-challenged examples

A number of individuals who have left us contemporary writings on the subject of mid nineteenth century flute development have had their veracity openly challenged in the past and indeed in some case up to the present.  Notable among these individuals are Theobald Böhm,  Richard S. Rockstro and John Clinton.  

Theobald Böhm’s (1794–1881) development of his 1832 conical-bored flute with rationally sized and spaced holes and an entirely new mechanism, and his subsequent application of this system to the metal cylinder bore, was the subject of virulent criticism during his lifetime and afterwards.  Beginning with his 1847 “Essay on the Construction of Flutes”, Böhm wrote extensively about his work in connection with these developments, but his writings were suppressed (in English, at least) during his lifetime, leaving the field open for his English-based detractors to attack him unchallenged. We will be examining the suppression of Böhm’s 1847 “Essay” elsewhere.  His more extensive 1867 work “The Flute and Flute Playing” was likewise never published in English until long after his death.  

It appears on the basis of subsequent research that Böhm was actually very honest and comprehensive in reporting on his activities and in defending his right to identification as the true inventor of the Böhm flute.  However, the fact that his own English-language defense of his position was suppressed during his lifetime meant that for fifty years his credibility as the inventor of the flute which still to this day bears his name remained under a cloud.  Thankfully, this cloud has long ago been dispelled.  

The chief attack upon Böhm’s claim to priority as the true inventor of his flute came from the London flautist and teacher Richard S. Rockstro (1826–1906), whose negative views of Böhm appear to have developed at a relatively early age, possibly as a result of an early association with the London flute-maker and vocal Böhm detractor Cornelius Ward (c. 1796–1872).  Rockstro questioned both Böhm’s priority in his invention and his competence as a designer and manufacturer, characterizing him as an “ignorant impostor”.  Böhm’s 1847 Essay provided a convincing rebuttal to Rockstro’s views, but as mentioned earlier it was suppressed in its English language form until 1882, following Böhm’s death in 1881.

Rockstro’s views reached their definitive expression with the publication of his monumental 1890 work entitled  “The Flute”, which, for all its faults, remains the most comprehensive and frequently-consulted nineteenth century work on that instrument.  Rockstro’s views regarding Böhm had been publicly challenged initially in 1882 through the belated and long overdue publication of Böhm’s 1847 “Essay” through the efforts of Walter S. Broadwood, closely followed by the publication of the first edition of Christopher Welch’s book “The History of the Böhm flute”.  This did not prevent Rockstro from maintaining his charges against Böhm in his subsequent 1890 publication. However, this publication prompted the death knell of Rockstro’s views through the release of Welch’s far more scathing second edition in 1892.  Welch was able to show quite conclusively that Rockstro had been guilty both of suppression of facts and of outright lies in presenting his views of Böhm and that his published views amounted to libel against the now-deceased Böhm.  Welch’s verdict has been accepted by almost all subsequent researchers – indeed, Rockstro himself clearly felt unable to refute Welch’s charges and retreated completely and with finality from the field of public commentary as of 1892.

This is a good example of the principle that the failure of an individual accused of misrepresentation to defend himself or herself may legitimately be seen as supporting the veracity of the accusation. Böhm provides a good example of this – the fact that as early as 1847 he went to the considerable trouble of writing a detailed English-language defence against the detractors who were even then slandering his reputation speaks volumes for his passionate (and evidently well-founded) belief in the legitimacy of that defence. Similarly, if Welch’s accusations against Rockstro were without foundation, it seems inconceivable that the normally loquacious Rockstro would not have followed Böhm’s example in mounting a vigorous defence of his own. Hence, Rockstro’s failure to respond to Welch’s aggressive challenge of his veracity on the issue of the Böhm flute provides perhaps the best support of all for the validity of Welch’s case – if there had been a rational rebuttal of Welch’s views available to Rockstro, we may be sure that he would have used it.  His silence in this context amounts to a “guilty” plea.

One would think that with such a clear verdict of prejudice and unreliability against him on the Böhm matter, the overall credibility of Rockstro’s work would have been questioned by subsequent writers – if he could intentionally mislead his readers so flagrantly on this important subject, could he have been similarly out of line on others?!?  Inexplicably, this question has apparently not been asked – instead, Rockstro’s work remains among the most frequent references encountered when reading works on the flute by subsequent researchers, and there does not appear to have been any focused attempt made to evaluate his overall credibility on matters other than Böhm.  In the interests of testing the veracity of the historical record as presented by Rockstro in his influential work, the present authors intend to remedy this deficiency when time and circumstances permit.  The results will be made available upon completion.

John Clinton (1809–1864) is a case in point when speaking of Rockstro.  Clinton also suffered from Rockstro’s scathing dismissal, but apart from a half-hearted partial defense put forward by Welch in his second edition, there has been no attempt to evaluate the credibility of Rockstro’s views on Clinton. Instead, most subsequent writers, while fully accepting the unreliability of Rockstro’s views on Böhm, appear quite inexplicably to have more or less completely accepted his negative view of Clinton (and indeed of others) without question.  Indeed, open accusations against Clinton as a liar and a failure continue to be made up to the present day, apparently based largely on Rockstro’s views. The present authors have embarked upon a comprehensive study of Clinton’s life and work with a view towards achieving some objective clarity regarding his flutes and his many written statements, and the results will be forthcoming as time and circumstances permit. 


An as-yet unchallenged commentator – Richard Carte

The distinguished career of this deservedly famous individual as a flautist, designer, manufacturer and promoter spanned the entire period during which the concert flute evolved from its simple 8-key conical bored form to essentially the form in which we know it today.  Carte wrote at considerable length in connection with his chosen instrument in the form of letters to the media, in his major 1851 treatise entitled A Sketch of the Successive Improvements made in the Flute (hereinafter referred to as the “Sketch”) and in the introductory General Remarks in the catalogues published over the years by the firm of Rudall, Carte & Co. His writings have frequently been referred to or quoted in subsequent works on the flute, and substantially all of his written statements to which reference is generally made have recently been re-published in Robert Bigio’s invaluable work “Readings in the History of the Flute” (London: Tony Bingham, 2006).  The reader is referred to this excellent compilation for perusal of the complete original texts to which reference is made throughout the work of the present authors.  

It should thus be quite clear that Carte was a significant commentator upon the development of the flute in the mid nineteenth century, and one whose work has always been treated as authoritative by later researchers. However, to our knowledge the actual credibility of his writings in academic terms has never at any time been challenged or questioned.  Some might argue that this was due to what they see as the transparent integrity and ability of Carte as a writer, designer, manufacturer, businessman and performer.  But in order for such qualities as integrity and ability to become “transparent” in an academic sense, they must first be shown to be transparent – mere opinion or anecdote will not suffice when academic credibility is at stake.  Basically, they must withstand the test of objective challenge and analysis.  Carte’s work appears never to have been subject to such a test.

So in a nutshell, we have in Carte one of the most important nineteenth century commentators on the flute, but one to whose work the test of credibility in an academic sense has never been applied. The present authors have undertaken such an evaluation, with perhaps surprising results reported elsewhere on this web site (make link).  


It should be apparent from the above discussion that there can be no sacred cows when it comes to the application of the credibility test to the writings of previous commentators on this fascinating but sketchily-documented subject.  Undue reliance upon the unsubstantiated statements of any such commentator can be fraught with pitfalls unless every effort is made to apply a high standard of academic rigor to the confirmation and objective interpretation of their statements. 

The present authors have consistently applied the standards set out above to their own historical research, and will continue to do so.  We fully embrace the notion that our findings will be debated and challenged – after all, this is how the academic process is supposed to function in the interests of the maintenance of credibility.  All we ask is that in challenging our views, our colleagues do so to the same standards of academic rigor that we ourselves have applied to our own work.  Opinion and innuendo have no place in the establishment of facts in connection with research of this nature – only hard evidence and reasoned argument will do!




Put together by Canadian flute researcher and player, Adrian Duncan, with some input by Terry McGee.



Back to McGee-Flutes Contents page...